500 Women Scientists is thrilled to continue our Meet the Scientist blog series! In celebration of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, we’re excited to highlight Palestinian women scientists who are both living in occupied territories and beyond. In this post, the spotlight is on Dr. Joman Y. Natsheh!
Dr. Joman Y. Natsheh, a physician and a neuroscientist, is the research lead for the Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics section of Children’s Specialized Hospital, a visiting scientist at Kessler Foundation and a Research Assistant Professor at Rutgers University Medical School in the USA. She is a founding member and the associate director of the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative at Al-Quds University in Palestine.
Dr. Natsheh received her medical degree from Al-Quds University, and completed her Ph.D. training in behavioral and neural sciences at Rutgers University. She also completed a fellowship in pediatric neuroscience at Rutgers/Kessler Foundation. Her research focuses on characterizing neural, molecular, and cognitive/behavioral correlates of neurodevelopmental disorders in children and in animal models. After completing her medical training, Joman was selected as one of three researchers worldwide to receive the Rita Levi-Montalcini Postdoctoral Fellowship from the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). She has also received a Postdoctoral Fellow Research Award from Rutgers University, the Dr. Raniyah Ramadan Award for Young Arab Neuroscientists, and the Al-Ashwal award for Outstanding Neuroscientists in the MENA region.
1. When did you first identify as a scientist?
Since my childhood, I immersed myself in activities, competitions, and challenges to push my limits and get out of my comfort zone. I have always found an unparalleled thrill in exploring new things; books, study topics, and places. During the second year of medical school, my interest in the human brain was significantly primed by learning the principles of neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. I knew at that point that a career in neuroscience would be my way forward.
2. What does your work focus on?
Between Palestine and the U.S., I study developmental aspects of the brain and behavior in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Specifically, I use functional brain imaging and basic behavioral and cognitive paradigms in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder to study habitual and goal-directed behavior. My research aims at identifying individual differences in brain and cognitive function that can lead to novel diagnosis and treatment approaches.
Our efforts at the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative focus on building capacity for neuroscience research in Palestine that addresses locally-relevant and internationally-generalizable needs. At both the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative and Children’s Specialized Hospital, I am leading the efforts to establish a neurodevelopmental research nucleus through building original research studies and fostering local and international collaborations.
3. How did the current climate in Palestine impact your ability to work as a scientist?
I work between the U.S. and Palestine. The pandemic, along with the latest events in Palestine, made it difficult for me to go back and forth and be physically present in Palestine as much as I like or used to.
However, despite the pain of hardships in Palestine, they create unconventional opportunities to identify and train dedicated and bright young people. This has been particularly inspiring to me when working with young women who have a future that is wide open; waiting for them to explore. Supporting these women, and showing them by example that “we” can embark on a unique journey in science and in life without sacrificing everything, has been the highlight of my career at the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative.
4. What’s the best advice you’ve received over your career?
When I was a second year graduate student, I had a meeting with my program director. I was tearing up after a very difficult and challenging day. She stopped our discussion; looked me in the eye, and said: “Woman up! You’re a strong young lady! You’re an immigrant who is succeeding despite being away from home, family, and a familiar culture. Never show tears or be silent in a professional setting. You have a voice; own it!”.
This advice hit me and stuck with me throughout my career. Ever since, if I face any conflict or challenge, the first thing that comes to my mind is: how can I woman up in the face of this? And it always works!
5. When you’re not researching or organizing events to promote women in STEM, how do you relax and unwind?
I read. Books have always been my refuge. The beauty and elegance of Arabic literature light up my days, and recharge my soul. I also love traveling; the magic of exploring new places can always widen your horizons and give you a new perspective. Finally, I can spend long hours immersed in graphic design. It’s limitless, fluid, and creative. To me, playing with colors and patterns is therapeutic.
Check out Dr. Joman’s TEDx talk at Al-Quds University about the cultural stereotypes around women, and how understanding the distinct nature of women’s brain and behavior can shape new habits and address the stigma against women’s mental health: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hy6RqKjgs1I&t=120s
[Written interview with Dr. Joman Natsheh was coordinated by Dr. Rana Dajani; Edits by Farah Qaiser and Rosie Dutt.]